Bloomingdale Bites

June 2019

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Sylvan Theater on Rhode Island Ave. has been designated as historic. Credit: Taylor Barden Golden

Calming of Traffic, Not Neighbors
The big Bloomingdale debate of the month, well really the year, has been the traffic calming measures that may or may not be installed around 1st Street NW and others. After the battle over historic designation, this seems to be the next big fight in the ‘hood.

An increase in traffic accidents with fatalities on residential streets throughout the neighborhood stimulated a community call to install traffic calming measures on the streets most affected. Bloomingdale has historically been a high-traffic neighborhood, though the streets are not designed for it. Sidewalks are narrow, there is limited access to Metro (busses and rail), and the constant flooding leaves streets and sidewalks cracked and sometimes completely closed.

The city has been on a roll with adding traffic calming measures. If you’ve recently hit new plastic poles with your car while trying to turn, you’ve experienced them. And Bloomingdale residents want them. Working with neighborhood groups, DDOT offered many solutions to the issues and created a comprehensive plan that they submitted to the local ANC’s and the Bloomingdale Civic Association.

The proposal would install curb extensions to each of the nine all-way stop intersections between Florida Avenue and Bryant Street NW. The extensions and accompanying large planters would visually and physically narrow the road, cueing drivers to slow down and giving pedestrians a shorter crossing. The plan gained the approval of the BCA in February and was making its way through the ANC’s when it was abruptly put on hold by one of the commissioners.

The catch? Implementation would mean the loss of 6-7 parking spaces. And one ANC commissioner is not happy about it.

ANC5E06 Commissioner Karla Lewis expressed her opposition, making no mention of the support of the BCA. In response, DDOT Vision Zero Traffic Engineer Emily Dalphy offered to shave off intersections in response to Lewis’s concerns; she later confirmed that she could not guarantee those parking spots would remain either way.

“If the commission doesn’t want to move forward with specific locations, we won’t [touch the parking], but if another resident brings up a safety concern at the intersection specifically related to something like sight-distance, our typical remedy is to pull that parking back to the 25 feet,” Dalphy said. “So I can’t say it will stay that way forever, but because that is the law it will most likely be moved at some point.”

At the end of the day, DDOT can ignore the ANC’s opposition and move forward with the plan if they so desire, and there is a greater chance of that here given the support of the BCA. Residents are keeping a close eye on the fight, and a petition has been created to address the traffic concerns. The petition can be found here: https://www.change.org/p/dc-department-of-transportation-ddot-implement-mini-roundabouts-to-calm-traffic-in-bloomingdale-washington-dc

Speaking of Historic…
Though all of Bloomingdale is now deemed historic, the Sylvan Theater has stepped ahead of the pack with its own designation. The unanimous decision by the Historic Preservation Review Board designates the Sylvan Theater, once known as the American Theater as a Historic Landmark in the District of Columbia’s Inventory of Historic Sites, with the period of significance running from 1913 through 1972.

Located on the 100 block of Rhode Island Avenue NW, the theater was originally constructed in 1913 as the American Theater and was then renovated and rebranded as the Sylvan Theater in 1929. The early teens were a time that cinema historian Robert Headley identified as the “first palace” era, where technical advances enhanced the viewing experience and dramatically increased the popularity of movies, which activated the replacement of small nickelodeons with full-scale, usually quite elegant and ornate, theaters. According to the landmark application, the years of 1913-1914 alone saw the creation of 35 new theaters in the District. It also notes that the American Theater is one of the earliest surviving examples (and one of the best) of neighborhood theaters built exclusively for films.

In the 1950s, the Bloomingdale neighborhood and DC in general were experiencing a radical shift, one exemplified in the history of the then-Sylvan Theater. In early 1950, Sylvan opened to African Americans and during that decade was known as a “black theater.” It was during this time the iconic and still-standing Sylvan sign was constructed. Sylvan eventually closed its doors as a working movie theater in 1965 and went into bankruptcy.

In 1969, the theater was reborn as the first home of the Black American Theater (BAT) company. Founded by Paul and Thomasena Allen, the BAT, run “entirely by and for the black community,” was a subsidiary of a performance and educational entity known as the New Theatre of Washington which had grown out of the civil rights movement.

Although the BAT’s residence at the Sylvan was brief, it was, according to the application, highly influential: “The BAT was the earliest significant theatrical company representing the cultural flowering that accompanied the political self-empowerment of the District of Columbia’s African-American community and anticipated the arrival of Home Rule. Its record of successful productions was a key achievement in what has been called a “mini-renaissance” and a golden age of African-American Theatre in Washington.”

After the BAT closed up shop at Sylvan, the building reverted to sporadic rental uses. The Metropole Cinema Club leased the Sylvan in 1975-76 before closing. It was followed by a store called Antiques ‘n Old Stuff, and now holds Sylvan Bakery and other eateries.

 

Taylor Barden Golden is a real estate agent with The Stokes Group at McEnearney Associates, Inc. A former Hill staffer, Taylor lives in Brentwood with her husband, two dogs, and a cat. She’s always on the lookout for new places to explore and ways to spend time outside. Get in touch: taylor@midcitydcnews.com; @rtaylorb.